Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Strained Egyptian-Saudi relations

Tensions between Riyadh and Cairo are inevitable in the context of the region’s present flux, but are worrying nonetheless, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the last two weeks, relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia were put to a severe test. If things have calmed a little it should not be interpreted that good times will be the norm in the future. The last 15 days demonstrated that, despite official denials on both sides, the state of these relations is one of underlying tensions that could burst open sooner rather than later, taking into account their different and colliding visions concerning the civil war in Syria as well as relations with Turkey, and the Turkish role in shaping the new configuration of power in the Middle East, including in Iraq and vis-à-vis Iran.

These tensions were exposed during the UN Security Council session on the situation in Syria two weeks ago. The council convened to vote on two draft resolutions on the crisis, one Russian and the other tabled by France and Spain. The first stressed the need for an immediate ceasefire; the second called for ending the bombing campaign on the eastern part of Aleppo, the scene of fierce fighting between government forces and groups funded, armed and supported by the United States and its allies and regional partners, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.

In fact, the two texts submitted to the Security Council reflected the positions of the two camps confronting each other in Syria. One wanted to halt the progress of the advancing Syrian army, slowly making military progress in retaking Aleppo from armed groups; the other did not want to relinquish, under any circumstances, the military advances made by the Syrian army during the battle for Aleppo that began a couple of months ago, and is still raging.

Russia exercised its veto on the French draft resolution, whereas the Russian text failed to get the necessary nine votes to pass. Egypt voted for the two texts. The permanent representative of Egypt to the United Nations explained after the vote that Egypt supported the two texts based on its desire to see an immediate ceasefire put in place, and the delivery of humanitarian aid to the besieged areas in Syria, foremost to the eastern districts of Aleppo, and, lastly, the resumption of political talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups in Syria — all groups and not only those handpicked in the grouping known as the “Coalition”.

In an unprecedented move by the Saudis that took Egyptians and everyone else by surprise, the Saudi permanent representative to the United Nations took Egypt to task for its support for the Russian resolution and questioned how Senegal and Malaysia opposed the Russian draft while Egypt endorsed it. It was a signal for Saudi media to question Egypt’s credentials to lead the Arab world (something we never talk about, by the way), and tried to drive the point home that Saudi Arabia is the protector of Arab interests. In the meantime, Egypt was accused, not only by the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations in his remarks in the Security Council, but also by Saudi writers, of breaking the Arab consensus on Syria. A preposterous claim for the simple fact that there has never been such consensus among Arab countries in the first place.

The confrontation between the two visions — the Egyptian and the Saudi — coincided with an announcement by Aramco that it is halting the shipment of fuel products to Egypt for the month of October. In the blink of an eye, political and media pundits linked the political row and the announcement. In other words, Saudi Arabia is reneging on an agreement signed with the Egyptian government last summer to provide it with fuel products for five years, on commercial terms, that would cost $23 billion. That is the way Egyptian public opinion and the media interpreted the decision of Aramco. The fact that the decision was taken prior to the Security Council session failed to convince Egyptians.

The Egyptian president, for his part, denied in an interview published Saturday, 15 October, that relations with Saudi Arabia had seen any deep disagreements, and on a previous occasion two days before he reiterated the Egyptian position regarding the situation in Syria, stressing that he had already made this position clear in his remarks before the 71st session of UN General Assembly in September, and before the special session of the Security Council on Syria on 21 September (an indirect way to criticise and answer the Saudi media campaign against, not really how Egypt voted for the Russian text, but against Egypt, because of its distancing itself from the sectarian confrontation raging in the Middle East and the Gulf region led by Saudi Arabia and Iran). Cairo is not enthusiastic to be an active member in the so-called “Sunni Coalition” led by the Saudis to fight terrorism. From an Egyptian point of view, there is growing apprehension that this group of countries aim at countering Iran across the region. From an Egyptian perspective, the Arabs could fight growing Iranian influence in Arab affairs differently, and in a strictly Arab context. On the other hand, and notwithstanding these strategic considerations, how could Egypt be an active party in a coalition that has as a member country Turkey, that publicly questions the political legitimacy of the Egyptian government? Not only that, but harbours those who call for the overthrow of the Egyptian government.

The Middle East is witnessing deep changes that have strained relations among governments in a strategic context that is fluid, so far, and keeps changing and, accordingly, it is not possible that the interests of Arab and regional powers can be aligned. Relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia can’t escape this dilemma. Both countries are called upon to manage their opposing strategic visions diplomatically and work on the common denominators that bind the two countries together. Hopefully, the media on both sides of the Red Sea will refrain from fanning the flames when they erupt, every now and then.

Egypt, in all circumstances, should start preparing Plan B.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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